'Is our faith strong enough to believe in the possibility of miracles?'
What can we say about this story about Jesus, other than at the end of a busy and tiring day, wanting to get away for a while from the many curious people who were following him around wherever he went - folk eager to catch every word that he said, and see every thing he did - Jesus decides that he fancies a bit of peace and quiet - and who can blame him.
So he persuades one of his disciples, or maybe a local fishermen, to take them across the lake in their boat - and as if to show just how tiring his life had become, promptly falls straight asleep.
The lake, hemmed in by steep mountains and narrow valleys down which the wind is funneled, is often affected by sudden squalls - locals would have known that.
Some of the disciples were experienced fishermen, surely well used to the vagaries of the weather. Others were more like me, landlubbers. I don’t know about you, but even in a cross-channel ferry - for all its bulk and size - when that starts moving up and down then so does my stomach.
In a small fishing boat, with the wind blowing and the boat bouncing up and down, I’d be there with the rest of them, going yellow, moaning loudly and feeling decidedly uncomfortable as the waves started crashing over the bow.
Mark doesn’t tell us if it was the sailors or the landlubbers who panicked first - Jesus of course was still fast asleep - but it does at least seem as if they expected Jesus to be able to do something. This is of course Jesus the carpenter’s son, not Jesus the experienced sailor.
"Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?" they cry above the roar of the wind.
What did they want him to do? Grab a bucket and start bailing out? Take the rudder and steer? Jump out and swim for help? Or something else?
The storm sounds serious enough for them to want Jesus to do anything - anything that is, except sleep. But yet, when he does act, by shouting for the wind and waves to be quiet and still, they seem stunned with surprise.
"What’s the problem?" asks Jesus, as if to say "I’m here! You surely didn’t expect anything terrible to go wrong, did you?"
Naturally enough the disciples are a bit embarrassed and confused, and ask "Who is this? Even the wind and waves obey him!"
"Who is this?" A question that was asked inwardly if not outwardly by everyone that came into contact with Jesus.
In fact, the question is answered from the Old Testament, where it is God who is seen to control the elements.
Listen to the words of the psalmist as he sings to God. "You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up you still them."
And again in Psalm 93 "The seas have been lifted up, O Lord, the seas have lifted up their pounding waves. Mightier than the thunder of the great waters, mightier than the breakers of the sea - the Lord on high is mighty."
And remember, as Isaiah mentions in chapter 51 "Was it not God who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep, who made a road in the depths of the sea, so that the redeemed might cross over."
So it was God’s power that was revealed in Jesus. But whether or not the disciples fully realised this at the time is debatable. When you look at the gospels it does give the impression that although they were following Jesus around on a daily basis, listening to what he had to say, and witnessing the healings and miracles that he seems to have performed, they were still confused as to the true identity of the one they were following.
They weren’t just like sheep following without any reason. They knew he was someone special, they new he was no ordinary prophet, but they couldn’t make the quantum leap in thought needed to see his true nature.... not yet, anyway!
They were, though, getting used to seeing miracles - healings, demons exorcised, pretty spectacular stuff!. There was a popular song in the 70s which talks of love and says "I believe in miracles!" Can we, in this age of scientific discovery and medical advances, or is there the tendency to try and explain things away - push the miracles under the mat and out of sight?
But there’s a warning which needs heeding if that’s the case. If the miracle didn’t happen on the lake, if it wasn’t the word of Jesus that calmed the storm, then the power of God was not revealed in this event.
If the miracle didn’t happen and yet the early church believed that the power of God was revealed in this incident, which seems likely, then they were mistaken and the whole event is worth nothing - You can’t have your cake and eat it!
So what are the objections to accepting a miracle such as the calming of the storm, or indeed any of the others, simply for what they are? After all, even if the stories are legendary (which I believe they aren’t), then we’d still want to know what it was about Jesus that made people want to tell stories about him.
One thing is certain. We can’t simply dismiss the miracles in order to try and create a non-miraculous Jesus. They are a major part of the story.
Science tries to rule out the possibility of miracles simply because they don’t fit into the natural order of things; there needs to be cause and effect in nature. But Christians would argue that miracles aren’t natural events, they are by their very nature supernatural events. At the very most, it could be argued that normally miracles don’t occur - but that doesn’t mean that they can never happen.
Academics and historians might argue that there is no reliable historical evidence for miracles. We need hard evidence, they would say, not just one or two possible witnesses who might have misinterpreted what they saw.
If however only one miracle could be claimed to be historical, then this might be enough to demonstrate not only that miracles are possible, but further ones probable.
Surely then, we have one in the resurrection. Paul tells us that there were over 500 witnesses present at one time who saw the risen Christ. This in addition to the appearances to the disciples and Mary - not forgetting Thomas who actually touched the wounds of Jesus. If people want to disagree with that then they must produce some convincing alternative explanation.
If the resurrection took place, then it makes the facts about the other miracles highly likely. It suggests that God can act in nature in an unusual or supernatural manner.
Secondly, the resurrection is God’s "Yes" to the life of Jesus - including Jesus’ own claim to work miracles.
"Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard," he told John the Baptist’s messengers. "The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the Good News preached to the poor."
So what was the purpose of the miracles we read about in the gospels, and later in Acts and the letters to the churches. Was it necessary for Jesus to be seen as a miracle worker, different from other men? After all, there were others around who practised magic and claimed to perform the miraculous, and they too had their followers.
If we look at the miracle stories about Jesus we find several pointers that help us to understand their purpose, and also aid us in our understanding of the nature of Jesus.
In general the miracles were effected by the simple command of Jesus, or by his touch. There were no magic wands, no superstitious mumbo jumbo associated with these acts.
In the first chapter of Mark’s gospel, after Jesus drove out an evil spirit from a man, the people asked each other, "What is this? A new teaching - and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him." In our reading, Jesus merely said "Quiet! Be still!" to the elements, and all was put right - chaos transformed into order.
The miracles didn’t bring glory to Jesus, but instead were meant to bring glory to God. After Jesus brought back to life a young man who had died, all the people were filled with awe, we’re told, and praised God. ‘God has come to help his people’ they said
The miracles testified to God’s love for a suffering humanity. Jesus wasn’t one to turn away when faced with the horror of leprosy. Filled with compassion he reached out and touched those affected by the disease.
They fulfilled the Old Testament promises of the coming time of salvation, when God would heal people’s bodies and their souls.
Isaiah 35 "Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer and the tongue of the dumb shout for joy."
Miracles also helped to lead people to faith in the saving power of God at work in and through Jesus. John tells us that ‘Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of the disciples which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that by believing you may have life in his name.
To those with eyes to see, these miracles were the sign that God was at work in Jesus in fulfilment of his promises - and were meant to awaken and confirm faith in him.
And did all this stop with the death of Jesus. No! It also applies to the miracles in the early church. The early Christians displayed similar powers to those of Jesus. The sick were healed, dead raised, prisoners were miraculously released. These were the signs that the same power of God was still at work in Jesus’ disciples, confirming their message of salvation and also warning of God’s judgement.
Jesus gave his disciples the power to perform miracles. They continued to heal in the power of Jesus after Pentecost - this was very much a part of the experience of the early church. One of the gifts of the Spirit as listed by Paul is the working of miracles, another is the gift of healing.
But the one who heals is always God himself, never the Christian, never the church.
Miracles are still possible. Jesus did not say that all supernatural signs of his power would die with him, or gradually fade away as the apostles grew old. The God we worship and the Jesus we believe in are the same yesterday, today and forever.
God’s power is still very much at work in this world. Perhaps our problem is that we are sometimes too sceptical to see and recognise it at work. Too quick to explain away the unexpected, call it a coincidence, a mis-diagnosis, a trick of the light, an illusion.
We pray for healing when we or friends are sick, but do we really expect healing - if not, then what do we think will happen? We pray for the leaders of our country and church that they might be given wisdom and authority, but do we look at their faces on the TV and think this is possible? - If not, then our prayers are rather hollow, and can we honestly expect them to be answered, for God knows our hearts and our minds, senses our uncertainty.
When Jesus commanded the waves and the storm to be still, I doubt very much if he said "I hope you don’t mind me asking, but if it’s not too much trouble, I wonder if you’d mind just turning the volume down a bit.....I’d be ever so grateful if you would!" Jesus, we are told in several passages spoke with authority, with supreme confidence. It was this authority that astounded the people who witnessed these events.
Is our faith strong enough to believe in the possibility of miracles? Do we look forward in anticipation when we pray for healing and rejoice when it happens. If not, then maybe this is where our prayers should be targeted - that God will grant us the faith to believe that his power is still at work in the church today, in our lives and the lives of those around us, working to convict, to convince and to draw all men back to their creator and their loving Father.
No magic tricks, just the power of God’s love available to be used through his people, if only they will open their hearts, believe and receive.